Guide to Quitting Smoking

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Staying smoke-free

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Special concerns after quitting smoking

Weight gain

Many smokers do gain weight when they quit. But even when steps aren’t taken to try to prevent this, the average gain in most studies is less than 10 pounds. There’s some evidence that smokers will gain weight after they quit even if they don’t eat more. Some studies suggest that nicotine replacement therapy or bupropion may help delay weight gain, but they don’t prevent it. Increasing your exercise level is not only a way to lower your cravings for cigarettes in the short-term, it can also lessen weight gain over the long term.

For some people, a concern about weight gain can lead to a decision not to quit. But the weight gain that follows quitting smoking is usually small. It’s much more dangerous to keep smoking than it is to gain a small amount of weight.

You are more likely to quit smoking successfully if you deal with the smoking first, and then later take steps to lose weight. While you’re quitting, try to focus on ways to help you stay healthy, rather than on your weight. Stressing about your weight may make it harder to quit. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and limit fat. Be sure to drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep and regular physical activity.

Try walking

Walking is a great way to be physically active and increase your chances of not smoking. Walking can help you by:

  • Reducing stress
  • Burning calories and toning muscles
  • Giving you something to do instead of thinking about smoking

A pair of comfortable shoes is all most people need for walking, and most people can do it pretty much anytime. You can use these ideas as starting points and come up with more of your own:

  • Walk around a shopping mall
  • Get off the bus one stop before you usually do
  • Find a buddy to walk with during lunch time at work
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Walk with a friend, family member, or neighbor after dinner
  • Push your baby in a stroller
  • Take a dog (yours or a maybe neighbor’s) out for a walk

Set a goal of at least 2½ hours of moderate intensity physical activity spread throughout each week. But if you don’t already exercise regularly, check with your doctor before you start. If you’d like to learn more, please see our American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention.

Stress management

Smokers often mention stress as one of the reasons for going back to smoking. Stress is part of life for smokers and non-smokers alike. The difference is that smokers have come to use nicotine to help cope with stress and unpleasant emotions. When quitting, you have to learn new ways of handling stress. Nicotine replacement can help for a while, but over the long term you will need other methods.

As mentioned before, physical activity is a good stress-reducer. It can also help with the short-term sense of depression or loss that some smokers have when they quit. There are also stress-management classes and self-help books. Check your community newspaper, library, or bookstore.

Spiritual practices involve being part of something greater than yourself. For some, that includes things like religious practices, prayer, or church work. For others, it may involve meditation, music, being outside in nature, creative work, or volunteering to help others. Spirituality can give you a sense of purpose and help you remember why you want to stay smoke-free.

The spiritual practices of admitting that you cannot control your addiction and believing that a higher power can give you strength have been used with much success to deal with other addictions. These practices, along with the fellowship of others on a similar path, are a key part of 12-step recovery programs. These same principles can be applied to quitting smoking.

Think about how you can deal with stress and not smoke. Look at the resources around you and plan on how you will handle the stressors that will come your way.

Taking care of yourself

It’s important for your health care provider to know if you use any type of tobacco now or have in the past, so that you will get the preventive health care you need. It’s well known that using tobacco puts you at risk for certain health-related illnesses, so part of your health care should focus on related screening and preventive measures to help you stay as healthy as possible. For example, you will want to regularly check inside your mouth for any changes. Have your doctor or dentist look at your mouth, tongue, or throat if you have any changes or problems. The American Cancer Society recommends that medical check-ups should include looking in the mouth. This way, tobacco users may be able to learn about changes such as leukoplakia (white patches on the mouth tissues) early, and prevent oral cancer or find it at a stage that’s easier to treat.

You should also be aware of any of the following changes:

  • Change in cough
  • A new cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • General tiredness
  • Frequent lung or bronchial infections

Any of these could be signs of lung cancer or a number of other lung conditions and should be reported to a doctor right away.

Heavy smokers are at higher risk for lung cancer. But lung cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms until it’s advanced (has spread). The American Cancer Society has guidelines on the use of low dose computed tomography (CT) to screen for lung cancer in certain people at high risk. These people are heavy smokers and formerly heavy smokers between the ages of 55 and 74 years old who are in fairly good health.

If you meet these requirements, talk with your doctor about your lung cancer risk and the potential benefits and risks of lung cancer screening. After discussing what is and is not known about the value of early lung cancer detection, you and your doctor can decide whether to go ahead with testing. If you do decide in favor of testing, then be sure to have it done at a center that has experience in all aspects of testing people at high risk. For more information on this, please see Lung Cancer Prevention and Early Detection.

Remember that tobacco users have a higher risk for other cancers, too. You can learn about the types of cancer you may be at risk for by reading our document that discusses the way you use tobacco. (See the “To learn more” section to find this information.) Other risk factors for these cancers may be more important than your use of tobacco, but you should know about the extra risks that might apply to you.

If you have any health concerns that may be related to your tobacco use, please see a health care provider as soon as possible. Taking care of yourself and getting treatment for problems early on will give you the best chance for successful treatment. The best way, though, to take care of yourself and decrease your risk for life-threatening health problems is to quit using tobacco.


Last Medical Review: 02/06/2014
Last Revised: 02/06/2014